Was she a heroine, a villainess, or just a fool?

By Heather Blanton

 The life of Ellen Watson, aka Cattle Kate, was defined for us by greedy cattle barons, and dutifully reported by a cowardly, boot-licking press. According to these men, Ellen was a prostitute, a cattle thief, and a fornicator. She traded sex for cows and had no compunctions about doing a little cattle rustling on the side.

All that was a smear campaign to protect the cattle barons.

So, what was the truth about Ellen Watson? For one thing, she was a woman with a brain in her head and a fire in her eye.

At 18, Ellen married an abusive drunk who beat her with a horse whip. She put it up with it for a couple of years, then left the loser and filed for divorce. Truly a rare thing in 1883. Strong-willed and stubborn, she moved away to escape the ex. Life took her from Nebraska, to Denver, to, finally, fatefully, Wyoming. She made her living alternately as a seamstress and cook. There is no evidence she ever worked as a prostitute at any time in her life. She did drink, smoke, and cuss, though.

She met Jim Averill while she was cooking at the Rawlins House. Jim had a road ranch on his homestead, catering to travelers and cowboys. Ellen worked as his cook and was paid for her time. She eventually bought her own land—adjacent to Jim’s—started her own ranch and acquired her own legally registered brand. All while she and Jim were courting.

The couple applied for a marriage license in 1886, but never filed it. Homesteads were limited in size per family so it would have been to their benefit to keep the marriage a secret. Ellen also took in two young boys who came from abusive homes and they, in turn, worked her ranch.

Ellen’s independent ways brought her into direct conflict with the Wyoming Stock Growers Association and a neighboring rancher named Bothwell. Still big on the open range way of ranching, he despised Ellen and Jim’s piddly ranches. For nearly two years, Bothwell saw to it that the couple were threatened, harassed, and watched incessantly by riders from the WSGA.

Not interested in kowtowing to the cattle barons, Jim wrote fiery letters to the newspapers, decrying the men’s greed and tyranny. Ellen just kept on ranching, and to the devil with anyone who didn’t like it. Eventually, Bothwell ran out of patience.

On July 20, 1889, Ellen and Jim were accused of rustling cattle from his ranch. He and some his riders took the couple to a gulch and hung them from a stunted pine, not more than two feet off the ground. Witnesses said Jim begged for mercy, but Ellen went down cussing and swinging.

At the time of her death, 28-year-old Ellen had 41 head of cattle, a little over 300 acres, and a tenacious fighting 

spirit that burnt bright right up to the last second of her life. If there is any justice here, it is that we remember her to this day, not the cowards who hung her.

My book, Grace be a Lady, is set during the Johnson County War, in the aftermath of Ellen’s murder. I’ll give two winners paperback versions of the book. Just comment on Ellen and tell me what you think of her life and death. Was she a heroine or a fool? Did she bring this on herself? Should she have sold out and left Wyoming?

Leave a comment to get your name in the drawing for one of the 2 print copies of Grace be a Lady.

Buy Grace be a Lady on Amazon.

Find Heather online at Heather Blanton 




The hero in my current work in progress is in jail and needs to escape or he’ll soon be keeping company with the daisies.  The question is how? As usual, whenever I have a plotting problem I hit the books. Much to my surprise my research showed that escaping jail was no big deal in the Old West.

There was a good reason for this. Jails were often built in a hurry and were flimsy affairs. Adding to the problem, towns didn’t have the money to hire jail guards. One California jail was so poorly built that prisoners were put on their honor not to escape.

The way prisoners escaped varied and, in some cases, were even laughable. Dynamite was used on occasion, but was seldom necessary. Some prisoners simply walked out of unlocked cells. Others, like a man in a Yuma jail, wiggled the bars loose in a window.

AG jailArroyo Grande’s wooden jail house was the object of scorn and breaking out was somewhat of a town joke. On several occasions prisoners skipped town taking along the iron chains that were meant to hold them prisoners.

Roy Bean (yes, that Roy Bean) supposedly escaped a San Diego hoosegow by using a jackknife to cut through soft mortar. Bean went from escapee to the colorful judge known as The Law West of the Pecos.

Ten men escaped the Tombstone jail while the guards were having supper. They simply dug a hole in the wall and jumped fifteen feet to the ground.

Billy the Kid escaped from the Silver City prison through a chimney.

San Francisco’s first jail was a flimsy log structure built around 1846. John Henry Brown, editor of the California Star, wrote in ACTUAL EXPERIENCE OF AN EYE-WITNESS, FROM 1845 TO 1850: “One night a man, by name of Pete, from Oregon, was put in the Calaboose, for having cut the hair off the tails of five horses and shaved the stumps. As Leavensworth (the Alcalde) did not send him his breakfast, he called on Leavensworth at his office, with the door of the Calaboose on his back, and told him if his breakfast was not sent up in half an hour we would take French leave. Leavensworth sent his breakfast.”

jail treeWickenburg, Arizona didn’t have a jailhouse. Instead, prisoners were chained to a large Mesquite tree until they could be transported out of town. No one ever escaped the tree. However, so many prisoners were once chained to the boughs, there was no room for more.

Out of necessity one criminal was tied to a nearby log. He got sick of waiting, so he picked up the log and walked to the closest saloon.

One woman escaped jail with nothing more than her feminine wiles. After stagecoach robber Pearl Hart slipped out of Sheriff Wakefield’s supposedly secure jail, she boasted “he fell in love with me.”

Jailbreaks were so prevalent that New Mexico governor Lionel Sheldon declared that “escapes are as easily made as from a paper bandbox.”

Not all jailbreaks were successful, of course, and some escapees were either shot dead or caught a few days later. But many did manage to get away. Out of those who were caught, some went on to escape again and again.

More Love and Laughter from Margaret Brownley

Margaret’s story The Nutcracker Bride: He’s a Texas Ranger and she just shot him!

12brides of Christmas



Get Outta Dodge; it’s April Fools (and Egg…uh…Book Giveaway Day)

MargaretBrownley-headerEaster logo 2015a

The popular TV show Gunsmoke is credited for the term “get out of Dodge,” but the phrase actually has a more colorful and interesting history.

It all started in the little town of  Sidney, Nebraska. The town once had such a bad reputation it was called Sinful Sidney and the Wickedest Town in the West. Is there small wonder that they buried their dead in what was called the “Bad Man’s Cemetery?”


200 murderers, robbers and the like were buried there and those were just the ones who got caught. There were numerous lynchings, including one cowboy who somehow managed to get lynched twice. Sidney created so much news it had three newspapers.

In 1880, a robbery to end all robberies occurred and what today would amount to five million dollars was


stolen. Things were so bad that the Union Pacific railroad threatened to pull out stakes if something wasn’t done to curb crime. In an attempt to clean up the town, an edict was issued which told the bad guys to “Get out of Sidney, forever.”

aprilSince the edict was issued on April 1, some outlaws thought it was an April Fools joke. A hanging from the tree in front of the courthouse soon relieved them of that notion.

Reportedly over 200 thugs fled town. Word spread and soon other towns, including Dodge City, used Sidney’s crime-ridding blueprint to clear out their own criminals. Now you know the true story of “Get out of Dodge” and that’s no joke.


Petticoat Detective coverundercoversmall  Working Undercover

is No Job For a Lady

   To celebrate Easter I’m giving away a copy of

Petticoat Detective.

All you have to do is share an April Fool or Easter memory and you could be a winner!



Why Nobody Laughed at Smiley’s Hanging

You are cordially invited to a hanging . . .

Ah, research. Don’t you just love it?  It takes us to all sort of places we never expected to go. Recently while researching nineteenth century wedding invitations I came across an invitation to a hanging.
It surprised me to learn that written invitations for neck-tie parties were not all that unusual.  When nineteenth century hangings went from being public spectacles to private affairs, the burden of inviting law enforcement officers, jurors and other public figures to the proceedings was the sheriff’s responsibility. What better way to spread the word than to send out printed cards?
These invitations were valued and any community leader not on the receiving end took great offense.
For the most part, respectful fonts and paper were employed for the macabre task. Though most invitations were hand-written, a surprising number were engraved.
Some went over the line in poor taste, as much as Sheriff Wattron of Navajo County who had the task of announcing the hanging of one George Smiley for murder. Here’s a copy of the actual invitation:


Somehow the invitation got into the hands of a journalist who saw that it was printed and newspaper across the country and abroad printed the story. Not only did the lawman use paper with a bright gold border, his tacky choice of words stirred a controversy that reached the White House. President McKinley was so incensed by what he read he issued a thirty day stay of execution.
The Governor of Arizona was especially incensed at all the negative press. He released the following statement:
“The Sheriff of Navajo County, whose duty it is to execute the condemned and bring about the just expiation of an awful crime, has seen fit to publicly advertise and issue cards of invitation to the execution of the condemned, in unseemly and flippant language, and in terms which have brought reproach upon the good name of this Territory.”
Bending under the pressure Sheriff Wattron rewrote the invitation and was careful to include a respectful black border. However, he showed his displeasure by mailing the invitations too late for the governor and other critics to attend.
The second invitation was a vast improvement over the first, but somehow you get the feeling that it was written under protest.
“With feelings of profound sorrow and regret, I hereby invite you to attend and witness the private, decent and humane execution of a human being; name, George Smiley, crime, murder. You are expected to deport yourself in a respectful manner and any “flippant” and “unseemly” language on your part will not be allowed.”

So now you know why nobody laughed when Smiley died.


To Preorder Just Click Cover

FourWeddings and a kiss

“A kiss seals the deal in this splendid collection of novellas. Forget something old, new, borrowed and blue––pitch perfect humor and romance are what tie the knot in Four Weddings and a Kiss.

~Tamera Alexander, USA Today bestselling author of To Whisper Her Name and The Inheritance

Catching Gold Fever in Holcomb Valley ~Tanya Hanson

First of all, the four frenetic days of the Romance Writers American National convention were fabulous, and having lunch with the fillies was the best moment of all. Now it’s back to the trenches, unpacking, catching up on lost sleep….and finishing the wip an editor asked to see.

The story is set in Holcomb Valley, California, the site of the richest gold strike in the south part of the state. Convincing hubby to take me there (his birthday yet) was one of the highlights of my summer. Located near the resort village of Big Bear Lake in the mountains about 2 hours east of Los Angeles, today’s small, silent valley buzzed with 2,000 residents in the 1860’s.

While tracking bear in 1860, hunter Bill Holcomb came across the valley and found a ledge of gold-riddled quartz. News of the find wasn’t secret for long. By 1862, thousands of claims had been struck. Towns like Belleville and Clapboard thrived.

At first, placer mining was the thing. Simply put, miners staked a claim, then dug down to the bedrock. Once “pay dirt” (black sand) was found, it was washed, or sluiced, in a pond of snowmelt to separate the gold from the gravel.

All the mounds and knolls dotting the valley today aren’t just pretty little hills. Now covered now with pine needles and small plants, they’re actually the “tailings,” the dirt and rocks removed and tossed aside every which way.

Remnants of the Metzger mine show the difficulty of hard rock mining. After the placer sites were all staked, prospectors looked elsewhere for treasure, and found gold-bearing quartz veins in the hills. They started digging. I couldn’t even stand up in the Metzger, and crawling through the horizontal passages was just back-breaking.

The oldest method for extracting the gold from quartz rocks was the arrastra, or ore grinder. A round rock wall surrounded a flat circle of flat, level stones. From a post in the center, a harnessed donkey or mule walked an endless circle in the arrastra, pulling a heavy drag stone to crush the rock. A single load of ore took over four hours to process in this manner.  Over 100 aarrastras dotted the valley. 

Today, about 60 wild donkeys still roam the resort area.

Of course, staking a claim in the wilderness was easy. Protecting it was not. An estimate of 50 murders occurred during the first two years of the settlement. Some outlaws, like Salt Lake’s Button’s Gang, dominated the valley so completely they simply occupied any cabin they wanted. But other outlaws couldn’t evade justice and found themselves hugging the Hangin’ Tree.

Although this juniper(above) is still hailed as the legendary widow maker, with the branch cut off after a neck stretch, it’s most likely the stump below is what’s left of the real thing. Sadly, the valley was denuded of most trees during the heydey, to build shelter and towns, and to shore up mines.

Well, there’s more to tell some other time. Have you ever visited gold country? 

Hang ’em High


 I was thrilled recently to learn that my entry, Outlaw Bride, has finaled in the Romance Through the Ages Contest sponsored by RWA’s special interest chapter, Hearts Through History. This work-in-progress features a horse-hang-tree-barethievin’ heroine who manages to escape getting strung up on a tree outside an Arizona town. This second chance at life finds her mending her evil ways…and falling for a handsome Cavalry scout turned rancher.  All the while she’s outrunning her big bad outlaw brother and the bounty on her head. ..disguised as a nun.

Well, she’s itsy bitsy, so the hangin’ tree didn’t have to be very big…but most hanging trees, real or legendary, had to be sturdy with dramatic, stretched-out branches.  In California, oaks and sycamores were the trees of choice although juniper came in handy, too. Or should I say, necky? Many trees have been lost to age, disease, or development, but some remain, like the hanging tree in Holcomb Valley in the San Bernardino Mountains.  (shown below) 

The valley was the richest gold field in Southern California, a good dozen years after the Forty Niners up north. While miners and prospectors worked hard and honest to find their lucky strikes,  claim jumpers, gamblers, and outlaws such as Button’s Gang all the way from Salt Lake City, Utah, made harsh frontier justice necessary. In the first two years after gold was discovered in 1861, some 40, possibly 50 murders demanded a strong message of law and order.


Records claim that this lovely juniper in Holcomb Valley witnessed as many as four  hangings at a single time. When the hanged criminal was cut down, so was the branch from which he hung.

Down the mountain, in the canyon below a tollway in Orange County’s  master-planned community of Irvine, bad guys were hanged long ago from a stand of seven sycamores. A plaque reads, “Under this tree, General Andres Pico Hung Two Banditos from the Flores Gang in 1857.”

General Pico, the brother of California’s last Mexican governor, led the posse that captured and hanged at that spot Francisco Ardillero and Juan Catabo of the treacherous Juan Flores Gang. The gang had massacred a Los Angeles County sheriff and three other lawmen during a reign of terror that blazed for a hundred miles. 

Juan Flores himself was strung up in downtown Los Angeles while thousands of spectators watched, but the humbler Ardillero and Catabo were soon forgotten.

They might be nameless even today if the monument shown below hadn’t been erected forty years ago by an equestrian club. Today these sycamores symbolize life. Docents will lead hikes to O.C.’s Hangman’s Tree later in the summer only after a pair of nesting hawks have raised their young.  


 Up north, about an hour west of Lake Tahoe, Placerville, California still lays hangman-tavern-placervilleproud claim to its original moniker, Hangtown. All along historic Main Street, establishments display such names as Chuck’s Hangtown Bakery, Hangtown Grill, and even Hangtown Tattoo and Body Piercing. Without a doubt, Hangman’s Tree Tavern is the site most deserving of bragging rights, for down in its basement you can see the original stump from the white oak hangin’ tree. I’ve seen it…kind of sad, really. 

Placerville likely got its original name in January 1849 when a colorful gambler was waylaid by robbers after a particularly profitable evening at the saloon. Once captured, the thieves were unanimously declared guilty and condemned to death by hanging after a 30-minute trial and little evidence. At that time, the infamous white oak hanging tree stood in a hay yard next to the aptly-named Jackass Inn.

 Ken Gonzales-Day, an art professor at Scripps College in Claremont, California, has written an excellent book, Lynching in the West, which chronicles 350 such cases in California between 1850 and 1935. Tragically, many were racial injustices. Because he feels people tend to fictionalize the past unless they realize real people lived it, he has photographed dozens of “hang trees” in his research and describes his pictorial journey as “part pilgrimage and part memorial.” Some day, he says, the trees will be gone, and the last living pieces of this history will be lost.

Ken, who describes the trees as “witnesses standing there when the mobs walked by,” has kindly shared with us some of his hauntingly beautiful photographs, the three below and the “bare” tree at the top. It actually is very like the imaginary scene in my head where my outlaw bride almost meets her Maker. I didn’t know Ken’s work when I wrote the story.


hang-tree-twoFortunately, most of California’s native trees don’t have such  grim histories. Our state has got California live oak and palm trees (not native), groves of avocado and lemon and olive, the giant Sequoia, Generals Sherman and Grant, the coastal redwoods, ponderosa and jeffrey pines, and bristlecones thousands of years old. Not to mention hundreds of species inbetween.

Other than a Christmas tree by my fireplace in December, my favorite tree hang-treeis the lemon tree in my backyard. I raid it almost daily for slices for my iced tea. And we found a humming bird nest in a red-leaf not long ago.

What are your favorite tree stories? Did you climb them as a kid? Build a tree house? Hang a tire swing from a branch, or a hammock between two trunks? Tack a fairy door over a knothole to give the little people some privacy?

Please share!

(Many thanks to Professor Ken Gonzales-Day and the LA Times, May 7, 2009.)